Five “Locker Room Speakers” (and their message) for the 2019 Houston Astros

Perhaps more than any other group of MLB fans since the turn of the century, Houston Astros fans have endured their share of “highs” and “lows.” From the Astros’ first World Series appearance in 2005 to the dark days of 100+ loss seasons from 2011-13 to the franchise’s first World Series victory in 2017, the last twenty years have been a rollercoaster ride.

Given the franchise’s interesting history, it was refreshing to hear A.J. Hinch acknowledge the importance of the past in a recent interview with MLB Network. Among other things, Hinch noted that he often invites former Astros to speak to the team before and during the regular season. Phil Garner, for instance, was invited to share his memories as manager during the Astros’ 2005 World Series appearance.

The interview and Hinch’s comment inspired me to reflect on my own appreciation for Astros history, and to undertake an interesting thought experiment: If I was managing the 2019 Houston Astros and could invite any five individuals from the franchise’s history to speak to the team in preparation for the upcoming season, who would I choose? My list includes both living and deceased former Astros, as well as players and non-players who are (or were) significantly connected to the franchise. Every Astros fan has a completely unique perspective on Astros history, and will therefore have a unique list of the individuals they’d invite to speak to the team. Here are my invitees (and the “message” I’d ask them to communicate to the team):

(1) Dickie Thon (“Don’t take the game for granted”) – Thon played shortstop for the Astros from 1981-87 and was widely considered a shoe in for the Hall of Fame when his promising career took a drastic turn on April 8, 1984. On that day, he was struck by a Mike Torrez fastball that broke the orbital bone around his left eye and ended his season. Thon returned the following season, but he suffered for the rest of his 10-year career from depth perception problems that permanently capped his potential.

Most players on the 2019 Astros have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years, and the team is predicted to control the AL West for the foreseeable future. However, it’d be wise to remind the club not to take the experiences they’ve shared together or the recent string of successful seasons for granted. As with Dickie Thon, future success is never a “given.”

(2) Nolan Ryan (“Perfect preparation makes perfect”) – Of all Astros past and present, Ryan epitomizes the importance of meticulous discipline and preparation. Over the course of his Astros career (from 1980-89), Ryan never recorded an ERA above 3.80, consistently pitched 200+ innings per season, and only once struck out fewer than 183 batters. Even more incredible, he accomplished it all after the age of 33 and he struck out 270 batters in his age 40 season. As of this writing, Justin Verlander is 35 (36 on February 20th) and prior to the 2018 season had struck out 250+ just once (at age 33).

Perhaps more than in any other team sport, mental and physical preparation are critical in baseball and the 162-game regular season is a test of mental and physical endurance. Ryan can preach to the importance of coming to the ballpark prepared each and every day. He’s also garnered a reputation for his “grit” on the mound. Toughness in baseball has become a lost art, and the 2019 Astros could learn a lesson or two from Ryan (perhaps by watching this video on repeat).

(3) Craig Biggio (“There is no “I” in “Team”) – Biggio is the franchise’s quintessential “team player.” Over the course of his 20-year career, he did whatever the team asked of him. Biggio played catcher, second base, and outfield, and he remains the only player ever to be named an All-Star at both catcher and second base. Had Jose Altuve arrived in the major leagues a few years earlier before Biggio retired, I have no doubt that Biggio would have selflessly offered to mentor Altuve and step aside as an every day player (much like Alex Cora did for Dustin Pedroia in the waning years of his playing career).

Craig Biggio is with the team this spring training in West Palm Beach, Florida. His presence is crucial for inculcating a “team mindset” throughout the locker room. With the positional depth and flexibility on the 2019 Astros roster, each player (even the superstars) must be willing to play any role on any given day. Of the players currently on the roster, Michael Brantley reminds me the most of Biggio – he has built a solid reputation as a “team player” and I hope he brings Biggio-esque leadership to this year’s team.

(4) Jose Cruz, Sr. (“Play each game like it’s your last,” especially in the postseason) – Jose Cruz has been involved with all but one of the Astros’ eleven postseason appearances, three as a player (1980, 1981 and 1986); six as a coach (1997–99, 2001, 2004–05); and two as special assistant to the general manager (2015 and 2017). He also holds the franchise record for career triples (in my opinion, the demonstrative “max effort” play).

Cruz is my Dad’s favorite Astro because he played the game with hustle, passion, and an “Energizer Bunny-like” persistence. As a long-time assistant coach, Cruz has probably preached hustle many times to his Astros players. I’d bring him back to fire up the squad during the hot summer “dog days” of June and July.

(5) Roy Hofheinz (“Don’t be afraid of striking out”) – Aside from his accomplishments as an orator, broadcaster, and developer, Hofheinz was a member of the group that created the Houston Colt .45s (which later became the Houston Astros) and built the Houston “Astrodome” (the world’s first large covered baseball and football facility). Hofheinz is the entrepreneurial and enterprising mind that laid the groundwork (literally) for the franchise. After the Astrodome was built and the grass underneath the dome’s clear continually died, Hofheinz set out to invent a solution and worked with Monsanto engineers to develop “Astroturf,” an unused technology in baseball. By the mid-1970s many MLB teams had co-opted the innovation and Hofheinz’s imitation grass helped usher in a new era of fast-paced, “small ball” baseball.

Roy Hofheinz passed away in Houston, Texas, on November 22, 1982, at the age of 70. If he were alive today, he could speak to the 2019 Astros about the importance of persistence, ingenuity, and innovation. His message would be perfectly fitting for the MLB franchise that has singlehandledly launched a “data analytics revolution” in baseball.

Astros history is rich with outstanding athletes and individuals who have accomplished tremendous feats. J.R. Richard, Larry Dierker, and Milo Hamilton are a few that just missed my list. If you were manager, who would you invite to send a message to the 2019 Astros?

Featured Photo: Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle

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